Sign in  |  Register

The New Criterion

Quite simply, the best cultural review in the world
- John O’Sullivan


February 1990

Sound and fury

by D.G. Myers

A review of The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Criticism by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The American university’s peculiar ability to breed radical innovation alongside traditionalism—often in the same department, or even in the same scholar—has rarely produced anything so extraordinary as The Signifying Monkey by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Winner of last year’s American Book Award in criticism, it is the chief work to date by the man who, along with Houston A. Baker, Jr., is the acknowledged leader of Afro-American literary criticism. Gates has become even more prominent since the book’s publication. He is the latest addition to the English department at Duke University, where he joins such leading critics as Stanley Fish, Fredric Jameson, Frank Lentricchia, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and Jane Tompkins. The Signifying Monkey, then, merits particular attention for at least a couple of reasons. At a moment when nearly every university in the country seems to be rushing to hire specialists and arrange courses in Afro-American literature, the book is perhaps the best summary of an influential movement in current literary thought. What’s more, it is an example of the sort of work that is now considered front-rank criticism and that scoops up academic prestige.

The Signifying Monkey takes its title from what Gates argues is the central metaphor, “the trope of tropes,” in Afro-American literature. There is, according to Gates, an entire series of oral narrative poems about the “signifying monkey” in the black tradition. In its general outlines, the monkey’s story goes like this. Although the lion claims to be king of the jungle, everyone knows who the real king is: it is the elephant. The monkey, fed up with the lion’s roaring, decides to do something about it. He insults the lion publicly and at length—his “mama” and his “grandmama, too”—and when the Hon grows angry, the monkey shrugs that he is merely repeating what the elephant has been saying. Furious, the lion heads out to challenge the elephant, who impassively trounces him. The monkey either gets away with his deception or does not (there are differing versions), but in any event he is a success at “signifying.”

It is this concept of signifying, Gates argues, that explains “what we might think of as the discrete black difference” in literature written by blacks. Signifying is both a rhetorical strategy—that is, a method by which Afro-American writers discover what they have to say and in what order— and a principle of Afro-American literary history. Later writers can be seen to have “signified upon” earlier writers—to have imitated them, but with a reversal of their strategy.

The concept of signifying is made to do double duty: first, it enables Gates to create a system of principles for the interpretation of Afro-American literature by locating principles within the tradition of Afro-American literature—a system of interpretation which is (to use his term) “indigenous.” But secondly, it enables Gates to fix the tradition, the specific line of descent.

What is the concept of signifying? Gates notes that “few scholars have succeeded in defining it as a full concept,” and although he devotes twenty-five pages to the effort, it must be owned that he is little more successful. Gates is best at gathering together other people’s definitions. To signify, according to the jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow, is to “hint, to put on an act, boast, make a gesture.” The novelist Zora Neale Hurston defines signifying as “a contest in hyperbole carried on for no other reason.” In these conceptions, signifying sounds not too different from the traditional category of rhetoric known as “epideictic,” a term used for a display piece, a speech the sole purpose of which is to put the orator’s gifts on display (epideixis), and not with any practical intention. Yet to assimilate black signifying to the “Eurocentric” tradition of classical rhetoric is to lose “what we might think of as the discrete black difference.” And so Gates takes pains to track the concept to Africa instead.

Gates discovers the origins of this manner of signifying in the practice of divination among the Fon and Yoruba peoples of West Africa. Although these peoples never invented a system of writing, they possessed a sacred text (which was committed to memory by the priestly class and passed down orally) and a system for interpreting it that was fully developed, which “stood as a readily accessible institutional critique” of the governmental structures of Europe, and acted as a metaphysical challenge to the European tradition of humanism.

Gates condemns “seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European speculations on the absence of writing among Africans and its significance,” but he engages in a remarkably similar project. He speculates on the practice of divination among Africans and its significance for literary criticism. Upon examination, the African “discursive and hermeneutic universes,” although they do not revolve around writing, turn out to be superior to the European: one is genderless, the other is not; one is open-ended, the other is not; one does not insist upon determinate meanings, the other does; one is not wedded to binary oppositions, to the notion of contradiction, but the other is. “The [African] system simply would collapse,” Gates observes, “if it had not placed at its center the principle of interpretation as mediation, and as open-ended.” The implication is patent: the African system has remained intact, while the Western tradition has collapsed.

None of this is surprising, given Gates’s predilections. What comes as something of a shock is to find that the African system of interpretation is the triumphant vindication—of deconstruction! The African concept of interpretation incorporates, Gates says, “a system of differences and traces” which leads to the “deferral of meaning.” And as a consequence, the African system offers a hint of what is to follow upon the collapse of the Eurocentric system of humanism:

The ultimate indetermination of meaning [Gates says] does not lead the Yoruba to despair; rather, it leads them to return to the text of Ifa [the sacred word of the gods], to consult it regularly, to wrestle with its play of differences, not to invent a meaning, but rather to process a meaning from among the differences, sacrifice to Esu [the gods’ interpreter] and the appropriate deity, only to return to explore the process once more.

Thus the function of criticism, as envisioned by Gates.

It is an accident that the black English word signifying is also a common term in the vocabulary of deconstruction. The signifier may be the same, as deconstructionists would say, but what’s signified by it differs with each use. The terms are mere homonyms; their accidental sameness, though, betrays Gates into offering a deconstructionist account. Gates is to be praised for attempting to denote “black difference” as an element of the writing in texts by blacks—as “specific uses of literary language that are shared, repeated, critiqued, and revised.” But he is less interested in explaining these “specific uses” in such a way as to make them available to modern authors than in accounting for them so as to prepare them “for use in literary theory.”

Yet if it is true, as Jacques Derrida says on the dust jacket of Gates’s book, that signifying is an “idiom,” it follows that these “specific uses of literary language” can be mastered by writers who set themselves to it, that they provide writers with a means of finding something to say. And the passages of dialogue that Gates quotes from Richard Wright’s Lawd Today suggest as much. The function of criticism, at this point, becomes the stating of the principles behind the practice. When I studied as an undergraduate with Raymond Carver, for instance, he told the anecdote about a friend and fellow writer—William Kittredge, I believe it was— who asked Carver if he had ever noticed that in conversation people tend not to speak consecutively but to speak instead in non sequiturs. Stated like this, the notion gave Carver a new way to write dialogue. One can imagine a writer upon whom an account of signifying would act in much the same way. But not as described by Gates:

Value, in this art of poeisis, lies in its foregrounding rather than in the invention of a novel signified. We shall see how the nature of the rhyme scheme also stresses the materiality and the priority of the signifier.

The sad fact is that Gates’s intentions in The Signifying Monkey are mutually exclusive. Gates cannot specify principles of interpretation inside the black tradition without simultaneously upsetting the whole notion of “black difference” upon which the claim for a black tradition rests. For once a principle is stated it becomes literary, available to any number of writers and critics, and not merely to blacks. Gates recognizes this. As a “principle of language use,” he says, signifying is “not in any way the exclusive property of black people . ...” To his credit, then, Gates perceives that it would be an error to ascribe the unique characteristics of Afro-American literature to race. But he is not sure what else to ascribe them to. His reasoning runs in circles. Black writers form a tradition. How do you know? They all use the “trope” of signifying. What makes this trope distinctively black? All black writers use it.

Now, one might object that the Afro-American literary tradition is an accomplished historical fact. The Signifying Monkey traces a line of descent through Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, John Marrant, Quobna Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, and John Jea (authors of slave narratives), through Zora Neale Hurston, Ishmael Reed, and Alice Walker—writers who have already written. It makes no claim about what may yet be done. This makes the Afro-American tradition no less elusive, however. The Signifying Monkey announces itself as a work of theory (not of history) and relies upon the frankly ahistorical method of “close reading” to establish the lineaments of the black tradition. It offers no historical argument for the existence of that tradition. The only reason that Gates has chosen to discuss these writers, from Gronniosaw to Walker, is that they are black. He presupposes the tradition, in other words, and then searches for something to bale it together. His argument reduces itself to the claim that a shared dialect—black English—presupposes the likelihood that writers will share certain “tropes,” though he never says (a) on what basis these writers, from several different periods of history and regions of the country, can be said to share the same dialect, except on the basis of a physical similarity, or (b) how such similarities result in similar ways of writing.

Secondly, however, any conception of an Afro-American literary tradition founded upon the belief in “black difference” is reactionary. Gates shows how such know-nothingism can come about in his report of the Sixties radical H. Rap Brown’s disdain for the study of poetry. “[H]is teachers sought to teach him ‘poetry,’ meaning poems from the Western tradition,” Gates says, “when he and his fellows were making poetry in the streets.” What neither Brown nor Gates appears to have grasped is that the ignorance was manifest on both sides. Brown’s teachers failed to understand that poetry is a living art, a body of techniques for producing original work; yet both Brown and Gates fail to understand that poetry is also a canon, a collection of texts that embody techniques which might assist street poets in making better poems. Either a tradition is a literary one, in which case it potentially includes anything that can be done within the tradition, or it is a national or racial one, in which case it excludes certain kinds of work.

Gates is more concerned with classification, with identifying and labeling “tropes,” than with the theoretical bases of what he is doing; but because he affects a theoretical diction he is considered a theorist. “Theory” for Gates, however, is neither what it is for the scientist (a set of broad propositions that lead to the framing of hypotheses which can be tested) nor for the philosopher (the detailed knowledge of a subject when it is seen to comprise a separate, unified whole). To theorize, for Gates, means simply to cast research findings into the jargon of deconstruction, a.k.a. theory.

What Gates seems unaware of, though, is the extent to which his research into Afro-American signifying belies the tenets of the very theory into which he hopes to convert it. Thus he grounds his arguments upon such concepts as the speaker’s intention (the correct or misprized inference of which is the key to the effect of signifying), the sharing of knowledge by members of a speech community (or what E. D. Hirsch, Jr., calls cultural literacy), the distinction between literal and figurative meanings, and a naive version of the doctrine of literature as an imitation of life. Yet each of these concepts is called into question by deconstruction. This is no great matter, except that it reveals a confusion at the heart of Gates’s work. When he attempts to give a coherent portrait of the Afro-American tradition, Gates argues from one set of assumptions. But when he tries to assimilate the tradition to the categories of literary theory, he argues from another contradictory set. The effect is to leave all the assumptions in place.

Nor is Gates to be much preferred as a practical critic. Although he bestows extended treatment upon Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, and Walker’s The Color Purple, his thesis-mongering, his arduous effort to prove that these books adopt the rhetorical strategy of “signifying,” hardly makes them seem enticing. Indeed, Gates has small concern for the critic’s traditional job of evaluation. He has set his sights somewhat higher. “Let us hope,” he says, “that the gradual erosion of those nationalistic presuppositions that are amply evident in traditional schemes of categorization of the academic study of literature will serve as a model for the abolition of racist and sexist presuppositions in literary studies as well.” What Gates contributes to in The Signifying Monkey, however, is the tendency to shore up these same presuppositions in the name of eroding them.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 February 1990, on page 61

Copyright © 2014 The New Criterion |

E-mail to friend

add a comment

Leave this field empty

The New Criterion

By the author

Who killed literature?

by D.G. Myers

A review of The Death of Literature by Alvin Kernan.

How not to speak for the humanities

by D.G. Myers

On the pamphlet Speaking for the Humanities by George Levine for the American Council of Learned Societies.

You might also enjoy

Eliot in full

by Denis Donoghue

Review of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Volume 1: Apprentice Years, 1905–1918, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker & Ronald Schuchard & The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Volume 2: The Perfect Critic, 1919–1926, edited by Anthony Cuda & Ronald Schuchard

Most popular

view more >

Subscribe to our newsletter!

* indicates required


The Walter Duranty Prize for Journalistic Mendacity
On May 5, 2014, The New Criterion and PJ Media presented the second Walter Duranty Prize for Journalistic Mendacity. The award is given to highlight egregious examples of dishonest reporting. Also awarded this year was the Rather, a new award for lifetime achievement in mendacious journalism.
The Duranty Prize is named after Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow corresponded in the 1920s and 1930s who whitewashed Joseph Stalin’s forced starvation of the Ukrainians (the Holodomor) and many other aspects of Soviet oppression. Duranty was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his efforts. It has never been revoked.
Audio copyright Ed Driscoll,

Introduction to The Kennedy Phenomenon
Roger Kimball introduces The Kennedy Phenomenon, a conference presented by The New Criterion on Tuesday, November 19.

The Kennedy Phenomenon: "Watching the Kennedy Train-Wreck"
Roger Kimball reads Peter Collier’s paper on oft-overlooked unsavory details of the Kennedys' lives. Much of the paper is drawn from Collier’s book, coauthored with David Horowitz, The Kennedys: An American Drama.